In 2032 archcriminal Simon Phoenix (Snipes) awakens from a 35-year deep freeze in CryoPrison to find a serene, nonviolent Los Angeles ready for the taking. Unable to deal with Phoenix’s brutal 1990’s style, officials seek an old-fashioned cop to fight old-fashioned crime. They revive Sgt. John Spartan (Stallone), unjustly serving a CryoPrison sentence because of his last encounter with Phoenix.
Demolition Man 7.25
eyelights: its social satire.
eyesores: Wesley Snipes’ overacting.
“Send a maniac to catch one.”
In 1976, Sylvester Stallone stunned the world by writing and starring in ‘Rocky’. It was a monstrous hit, becoming one of the highest-grossing films ever at the time, and landed not just ten Academy Award nominations, but also won for Best Picture and Director.
Sly was on a hot streak that lasted nearly a decade.
By the early ’90s, however, he had cooled off some. A series of weaker efforts followed by gross misfires had given his superstar stature a beating. Then came 1993’s ‘Cliffhanger’ which wasn’t a massive success, but which at least brought him back atop the box office.
‘Demolition Man’ soon followed suit. Starring Stallone and Wesley Snipes, and supported by Sandra Bullock in one of her first major roles, it tells the story of a reckless cop who is sent out to catch a notorious criminal who has been released into society by powerful forces.
At its core, ‘Demolition Man’ is nothing new: it tells the standard good vs bad story that we’ve seen countless times before. What makes it different is the fact that it takes place both in 1996 and in 2023 (then 30 years into the future) and that it is tinged with social satire.
In ‘Demolition Man”, Sergeant John Spartan (Stallone) is found guilty of manslaughter after 30 hostages are found dead in the aftermath of a confrontation with Simon Phoenix (Snipes). He is sent to a cryo-prison, during which he will be subjected to behaviour rehabilitation.
(It’s all a patently ridiculous process, but it looks cool. Plus which it gives Stallone a chance to show off his lean, muscular bod.)
Flash forward 27 years, and Phoenix has escaped from the same cryo-prison after a violent parole hearing. As the authorities are incapable of dealing with a criminal of his sort, they feel compelled to reanimate Spartan early, so that they may return the villain from whence he came.
What makes the film amusing is the filmmakers’ vision of the future. The megalopolis of San Angeles is a peaceful, politically-correct place where all citizens’ behaviour is regulated (they are even fined for cursing!). This leaves very little for the woefully-unprepared police to do.
In ‘Demolition Man’, Spartan is the equivalent of a Neanderthal, with his actions frowned upon by most who cross his path – all but Lt. Huxley (Bullock), who is one of the rare few who longs for the excitement of the ’80s and whose office and home are a tribute to the era.
It makes for an interesting and humourous juxtaposition, as he tries to navigate this brave new world. Given the time in which it was made, which saw the rise of the politically-correct movement, seeing him in contrast with some people’s idea of an idyllic society is funny.
The picture also comments on the divide between appearances and reality, with everyone being happy under a benevolent dictatorship, but with some people living on the fringe, scraping just to get by – and with the authorities trying their best to have them secretly eradicated.
It’s actually a pertinent comment for our times.
The filmmakers try to be clever, and while they manage to inject a certain amount of intelligence in what is ostensibly a low-brow genre, they don’t always succeed: there are plenty of instances where the script simply does not make any sense, spoiling the moment.
A perfect example of this is the very premise: that Spartan would be convicted of murder when a simple autopsy would have determined that the casualties were already dead at the time, is pure BS. And even if the autopsy hadn’t been conclusive, an investigation would have sorted it out.
Then there’s the matter of Simon Phoenix being reanimated after being programmed with new skills that give him leverage in this new society. Fine, that’s useful to the powers that wants him back, but why weren’t there safeguards in place? Since no one can stop him, that would be crucial.
On the flip side, I quite like the notion that the only place one can get a gun is in a museum. In such a society, it makes total sense. However, what doesn’t make sense is that they would be functional – and that there would even be ammunition for each of them. Why wouldn’t they use props?
It’s absolutely moronic.
And, honestly, the notion that Taco Bell won the “fast food chain wars” and that all restaurants are now Taco Bell, is an utter fallacy. It might have been meant as satire of Corporate America, but it feels false – surely there would be independents rising from the ashes somewhere.
But ‘Demolition Man’ shows some intelligence in other areas, not just in its sociopolitical commentary and pop culture references (such as a nod to Rambo and a comical exchange on the Schwarzenegger Presidential Museum), but in a few self-reflective moments, rare as they may be.
My favourite is when Spartan discusses the fate of his daughter with Huxley, who offers to track her down (mis)using her authority. He tells her that, as much as he’d like to see her, he knows that he has no place in this society, let alone her life. Thus he decides just leave things as they are.
I really enjoyed this short moment because it fleshed out the character and it forced us to think of the consequences, of one’s personal responsibility. It gave Spartan a certain amount of dignity that he didn’t have the rest of the time, when he was causing havoc with reckless abandon.
Again, ‘Demolition Man’ isn’t genius cinema; the title alone guarantees that. Like most action films it suffers from the usual issues such as cheap sets and props (Phoenix’s wobbly escape vehicle is particularly risible) and from some serious self-indulgence (Bungee-jumping from a chopper? Blowing up buildings?).
But it’s a fun ride, perfect for when you want to switch your brain off – albeit not entirely.
Released later in 1993, it became Stallone’s second hit in the span of six months; it promised a return to his former glory. But it wasn’t enough to sustain his momentum: after ‘Demolition Man’ , Stallone found himself in one flop after the next, and within a few short years had virtually vanished.
It took his resurrections of Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, ten years later, to put him back in the spotlight. ‘Demolition Man’ was effectively the end of an era, of a genre of action film that had been popular for a decade, but also of a career that once seemed unshakeable, undemolishable.
In a sense, this was the ’80s’ last hurrah.
Date of viewing: April 6, 2015